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Antarctica was once home to vast river systems traversing the continent

Imagine stepping into a time machine and traveling back 34 million years. As you step out, you find yourself not on a continent of ice and snow, but in a lush, temperate landscape crisscrossed by mighty rivers. Welcome to ancient Antarctica, a land that time forgot – until now.

Recent research by a global team of earth scientists found compelling evidence of an ancient, expansive river network that once traversed Antarctica.

This discovery is reshaping our understanding of the continent’s past and providing a glimpse into a previously unknown era of Earth’s history.

Lost rivers of ancient Antarctica

Today, Antarctica is synonymous with a frigid, ice-blanketed terrain, home to hardy penguin colonies and a hub for scientific exploration.

However, this new finding suggests a dramatically different prehistoric landscape. Yet, it turns out that this frozen continent conceals secrets that are currently surfacing.

“The existence of such a transcontinental river system shows that – unlike today – large parts of West Antarctica must have been located above sea level as extensive, flat coastal plains,” explains Professor Cornelia Spiegel from the University of Bremen.

This statement paints a contrasting image of Antarctica as we know it today, allowing us to envision an Amazon basin or Mississippi delta-like landscape, teeming with life.

Strolling through Gondwana

To comprehend how Antarctica harbored such an enormous river system, we must journey back in time almost 100 million years.

Back then, Antarctica wasn’t the isolated continent we are familiar with today but was the centerpiece of a supercontinent known as Gondwana.

Gondwana was a geological enigma consisting mostly of today’s Southern Hemisphere landmasses. The placement of Antarctica at Gondwana’s heart played a crucial role in shaping its geographic features and climatic conditions.

Rivers of Antarctica: A forgotten tale

With the gradual splitting of Gondwana, Antarctica began its voyage towards the south. Despite being polar in positioning, the continent nurtured its temperate climate for millions of years, leading to the formation of prolific river systems.

The latest discovery suggests that the largest of these river systems stretched over 1,500 kilometers across the continent – roughly equivalent to the distance from New York to Dallas.

The question arises – how did scientists uncover this vast extinct river system?

The answer lies in the analysis of sediment samples collected during an expedition on the research icebreaker Polarstern. These sediment samples were the key to unlocking the mysteries of Antarctica’s past.

Upon examining the mineral and rock fragments in the sediments, the researchers unraveled that most of the material originated not from West Antarctica but from the distant Transantarctic Mountains.

Antarctica’s geological divide

The Transantarctic Mountains play a pivotal part in this geological narrative. These mountains have been rising since the late Eocene epoch, about 34 million years ago, thereby dividing the Antarctic continent into eastern and western regions.

As these mountains ascended, they underwent erosion, leading to the genesis of a vast sediment reserve, which was then transported across the continent by the river system and deposited in the current-day Amundsen Sea.

This study’s most astonishing finding reveals the dramatic transformation of West Antarctica’s topography.

While today this region lies largely below sea level, hidden beneath massive ice sheets, it presented a vastly different landscape at the close of the Eocene epoch.

Though focused on ancient geological events, this research offers valuable perspectives on contemporary climate dynamics.

The swift transition from a temperate, river-rich Antarctica to the ice-covered continent we know today underscores the potential for rapid and significant environmental changes.

Redefining Earth’s historical record

In summary, this study fills crucial knowledge gaps and transforms our comprehension of Antarctica’s history.

As we delve deeper into Earth’s past, we may uncover more important secrets hidden in its geological record.

Antarctica’s journey from a landscape etched with rivers to its current icy expanse exemplifies our planet’s dynamic nature.

Facing an uncertain climatic future, these insights into Earth’s past may provide crucial guidance for understanding and addressing the changes ahead.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


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